What will be the standing of Texas wines in the decades to come?
Where is Texas wine right now in status?
First, where it is not:
[The scene: A recent wine tasting class in Houston, all about a certain French wine region. The instructor was informative and the class was full of wine lovers. As the class was wrapping, the conversation wandered.]
Wine student: So what do the French think of us?
Instructor: They don’t think of us that much, actually. [laughter from the classroom] No, really, there is more of a respect, more so than in the past.
Why, this is positively wonderful, I’m thinking.
Instructor: There are French wine producers who have invested in wineries here.
What? This is amazing. Why haven’t I heard about this?
Oh wait—they’re talking about Napa…
At the time, I was digging for a ringing phone in the nether regions of my tote bag. So maybe that was the reason for my muddled understanding of the conversation. It just goes to show that I am ready and waiting for Texas wines to receive a little love from the rest of the world. Our best wines are quite noteworthy, and in the 15 years or so that I have been traveling around the state and sampling wines, Texas wines have started to evolve in a direction that’s pretty exciting.
You might be a Texas wine cheerleader like me, or you might be one of those people who purposely passes over the “Texas” section on a wine list. But by sheer size and momentum, Texas is a force to be reckoned with. It’s hard to ignore us.
We’re so big that we effect what’s in the nation’s textbooks. We lead all other states in beef cattle. Wind energy. Growth in tech jobs. (Look it up.) And we’re the 5th largest producer of grapes and wine in the country. People in the wine industry must take note.
At least, they should.
But at present, the Texas wine industry does not garner the type of national respect that would help lay the groundwork for wide distribution. Some of the national food and wine writers I follow who have traveled here in recent years are quite restrained in offering anything but a mild and polite nod to our wines.
Even so, wine tourism in the Texas Hill Country has absolutely skyrocketed over the last decade. Apparently, though, it’s all of us Texans who are mainly responsible. We’re drinking up most of the wine produced here–the best of it often sells out through winery tasting rooms and wine clubs. It’s a blast to take a bunch of friends from Houston or Dallas or Austin, hop on board a shuttle van, then zip around to a few of the many Tuscan-inspired winery tasting rooms in the scenic hills of Central Texas. But our wine industry has the potential to be even more.
By acreage, the biggest wine region in Texas is the Hill Country AVA (American Viticultural Area), so large that it’s the second largest in the entire country. What you may not know is that the number two Texas wine region, the High Plains AVA, is arguably the more pivotal region. Sandy, well-draining soil and the rock layer beneath it combine with cool nights and warm days to produce some of the best grapes in the state. A lot of the Hill Country wineries have agreements with growers in the High Plains, and their wines are made with these grapes.
Do you remember not too many years ago, when you would visit a Hill Country winery, and they’d give you a pour of their Merlot, or Pinot Noir or Chardonnay? You’re seeing fewer of those wines now. Those grapes don’t always do well in Texas growing regions, and it can show in the final product. So starting a few decades ago, the growers of the High Plains started experimenting with varietals better suited to Texas. Tempranillo, Syrah, Mourvedre, Viognier, Rousanne, Vermentino. These Mediterranean, warm-climate grapes are doing great things in Texas. And a head-turning number of highly praised wines are being made from them at Duchman Family Winery, located in Driftwood, about 25 miles from Austin. An old favorite of mine is their Dolcetto. This week, we opened the 2011, made with grapes from Bingham Family Vineyard in the High Plains AVA. It’s a versatile, straightforward red that is easy to pair with hard cheeses, finger foods, or an antipasti platter.
Duchman has banded together with three other distinguished Hill Country wineries–Brennan Vineyards, Bending Branch Winery and Pedernales Cellars–to point the way forward, creating a marketing initiative called Texas Fine Wine. Their wines are sourced 100% from Texas grapes, and they are racking up recognition and awards for their exacting standards in wine-making. Among the four of them, they garnered gold and a bevy of other medals at the 2014 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition as well as this year’s TEXSOM International Wine Competition in Dallas. And, in a very satisfying victory for Texas wines, Pedernales won a Grand Gold award in France at the 2013 Lyon International Wine Competition, the only U.S. Viognier to do so. How big was this win? Consider that Pedernales was up against world class competition, including, ironically, wines from Condrieu, the epicenter of viognier winemaking,which is just down the road from Lyon in the Northern Rhone wine region of France.
There are issues with which the Texas wine industry continues to grapple. As great as the High Plains can be for growing wine grapes, there’s the potential for deadly frost and almost horizontal hailstorms. And, as is often reported by Texas wine critics, there can be whole lot of heat. That dastardly heat–Texas can never be a real player on the national stage, because its just too hot, some are fond of pontificating. There’s a lot of push back on that assertion. Some will tell you to take a look at Napa right now, and you will see that they have had an unusually hot and dry growing season. Yet Napa growers are predicting an exceptional vintage. Well, then.
The other big controversy is over which wines should be designated as made-in-Texas wine and which should not. A number of Texas wineries are marketing wines that are partially, sometimes fully, made from out-of-state grapes, a practice tied in part to supply-and-demand problems within the state. The Texas Department of Agriculture in June proposed guidelines that would tighten up the requirements for a wine to be considered a “Go Texan” agricultural product, though some say the proposed improvements do not go far enough.
It’s going to take experimentation, trial and error, meticulous attention, and, ultimately, enough high quality wine to distribute large scale in order for Texas wines to receive the respect they deserve. That’s just fine. We’re a doggedly determined bunch of wine lovers here in the Lone Star State. We know that in the years to come people will be talking about the subtleties of the Texas terroir…
Tonight, John and I pulled a few bottles from our Duchman stash and uncorked their 2010 Aglianico, a deep, complex red that is good enough to make you want to call up all your wine friends across the country and send them a bottle just to show them what Texas wines are really like. Napa does not have the corner on great wine, no place does. There is room for a uniquely Texas style of exceptional wine to share the spotlight with world class wines.
So let’s make a toast, cent’anni! A hundred years of health and prosperity, as Texas wines find their groove.
Where are Texas wines going in the coming years?
Sure looks like it could be some place great.
Duchman Family Winery
13308 West Farm to Market Road 150
Driftwood, Texas 78619